Building for cars or building for people? 2 streets illustrate this distinct difference.

Jen Kinney is a radio producer and writer who shares today's guest article on two different streets in Fargo, ND and what we can learn from their radical divergence.

A hundred years ago, Broadway and Main Avenue in Fargo, North Dakota didn’t look so different from each other. Both had hotels and drug stores, jewelers and banks, all advertised under bold hand-painted signs. Shoppers made their way by foot or horse-drawn carriage or the brand-new Model-T. Streetcars ran down the center of each street.

But some time over the last century, Broadway and Main diverged, each becoming emblematic of a certain type of American street. After a misguided period in the 1970s — hardly a good time for downtown design — Broadway has become the center of Fargo’s downtown renewal, a walkable, mixed-used street that’s attracting retail and new residents. Main Avenue, which parallels railroad tracks and was once named Front Street, is a state highway — a stroad lined with small pockets of walkable retail and far more surface parking lots, valued more as a conduit than a destination. Why?

The Story of Broadway Avenue

It was easy for the planners, residents, and stakeholders I spoke to in Fargo to tell the story of how Broadway came to be the charming street it is today. After its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the street went through a major redesign in the 1970s.

A redesign in the 1970s turned Broadway into a pedestrian mall. That didn't go so well for the city. (Source: City of Fargo)

A redesign in the 1970s turned Broadway into a pedestrian mall. That didn't go so well for the city. (Source: City of Fargo)

While there still four lanes of fast-moving traffic above 2nd Avenue, the three blocks in the main commercial corridor were dramatically constricted with a serpentine layout of bollards and planters. The city eliminated parking, and installed canopies over the businesses, intended to mimic an outdoor mall.

“They were just godawful ugly, and it wasn’t long before they started to leak. The buildings started to empty out, and after a while it was mostly just banks and bars,” says Dave Anderson, former president of the Downtown Community Partnership. “It was a grand mess.”

In the early 2000s, fed up with Broadway’s neglected state, a group of community leaders and business owners got together and hired Anderson to do something about it. Fargo had recently created the Renaissance Zone Program, which offers tax incentives intended to boost economic development in downtowns.

At the same time, the city’s planning office was putting together a new downtown framework, with the rebirth of Broadway as a central goal.

But Anderson knew that in order for this to work, the plan would need to come from the public, not the bureaucrats. “One of the worst things you can do is do a lot of designs and concepts and then present it to the public, because then the public feels like it’s already a done thing,” he says.

The view down Broadway (Source:  Unimatic1140 )

The view down Broadway (Source: Unimatic1140)

He and his partners began hosting charettes in an empty storefront on Broadway, asking people to draw their vision for a new street on whiteboards and tissue paper. People wanted better greenery; they wanted to be able to park on Broadway again. At first, Anderson says, some of the city’s traffic engineers pushed back. They considered Broadway a major traffic arterial, and thought bump-outs, the return of street parking, and other traffic-slowing devices would cause major gridlock.

“History has shown us that they were really overly concerned about that,” says Anderson. “Broadway needed to be more of a gathering place than a place where cars and trucks were just passing through.”

The pedestrian focus won out. The street’s overlarge sidewalks were narrowed from 11 feet to 9. Diagonal parking was added. Speed limits were never posted, and after a while, traffic naturally slowed enough that bicycles now share the road with no need for a protected lane. Some side streets were converted from one-ways to two-ways to further slow traffic and safeguard pedestrians. Now juiceries and java shops and residential buildings have all come to Broadway.

“It’s probably the most walked-on street in North Dakota,” says Adrienne Olson of the Kilbourne Group, a private developer in Fargo. “We’ve purposefully decided to concentrate our investments along Broadway because that’s where retail can thrive.”

What Happened on Main Avenue

Meanwhile, Main Avenue took a different course, in part because of its mixed character. There’s still a few blocks of walkable retail between Broadway and 10th Street, but only on the south side of the street. The lots on the north side are narrow because of the railroad tracks, and they’re dedicated largely to surface parking and suburban uses, like a drive-through McDonald’s. On-street parking is limited, sidewalks are narrow, and traffic moves fast. This is the idea, of course. Main Avenue is a state highway, and one of three bridges in downtown Fargo between North Dakota and Minnesota.

Fast-moving cars and parking lots dominate the auto-oriented Main Avenue. Sidewalks are narrow, neglected and unsafe. (Source: Google Maps)

Fast-moving cars and parking lots dominate the auto-oriented Main Avenue. Sidewalks are narrow, neglected and unsafe. (Source: Google Maps)

“With limited river crossings there’s always been an interest and a focus on the mobility aspect that Main Avenue serves for the immediate region,” says Ben Ehreth, of the North Dakota DOT. As a result, Main Avenue’s walkability has suffered.

“Pedestrians tend to shy away from places with high speeds and high volumes of traffic, so if you’re focusing on a corridor moving cars and trucks it’s probably less conducive to attracting people to mill around and socialize in that corridor.”

No one I spoke to could say exactly how Main Avenue’s design came to prioritize cars over people. But a section of the street may soon undergo its own transformation, and Fargo City Planner Administrator Nicole Crutchfield says to understand why that redesign process looks so different from Broadway’s, “follow the money.” Even back in the 70s, city planners were able to shape Broadway to fit the current trends. That’s not so easy on a state highway, when state and federal dollars are involved.

While Broadway’s transformation arose from local residents’ and business owners’ desire for a more vibrant downtown, the Main Avenue project began with the DOT and a simple need to repair an aging street. But, according to Crutchfield, early public feedback showed that people were interested in the possibility of a more radical change — converting the stretch of Main Avenue between University Ave and 2nd Street back into a destination.

“One would be looking at it more as a corridor to move traffic, to move cars and trucks, not too different from the purpose it’s currently serving,” says Ehreth. “The other perspective that has come up through working with our local partners and with the public engagement, is a street that prioritizes pedestrian movement.”

Choosing between those designs also means choosing between priorities. When moving traffic is the primary goal, Ehreth says the main factors driving design are existing and projected car volumes, crash history, and safety. In considering a more pedestrian-oriented street, the DOT and their partners are looking at different factors.

“What we’re doing now is really kind of looking at the economics of the potential for the corridor,” says Ehreth. “What’s the potential to generate housing or new retail uses to this area?”

SRF Consulting is currently conducting a study of the potential economic impacts of the alternative designs, but local urbanists are already talking about how a Main Avenue reconstruction could be as impactful as Broadway’s transformation.

About the author

Jen Kinney is a radio producer, writer, kayak guide, and compulsive storyteller. She likes stories that live on the nervy boundaries between the individual and the collective, the personal and the political, the built and the natural.